The language of laughs
In Aristotle’s groundbreaking critical theory composition “Poetics,” comedy is one of several forms of literature. While that world may seem like a far cry from the standup comics and improv troupes of today, students at Arizona State University are using what they learned as humanities majors to power a career on the stage.
Dunkley’s introduction to comedy began when a class on comedy and social discourse asked her to step outside her comfort zone.
“That was the first time I really thought critically about how comedy affects people socially and emotionally,” she said. “For the final in that class, you could write a paper, write a pilot or do a 10-minute standup routine.”
Dunkley chose the performance and was surprised by how much she enjoyed the process.
“I loved the writing that went into it and ended up having a really good set,” she said. “When I got on stage with something I’d worked so hard to produce, I loved that feeling.”
The realization pushed Dunkley to switch from studying theater to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in film and media studies from the Department of English. She graduated in 2017 and now works as a director’s assistant and continues to perform stand-up at local venues. It’s been five years since that initial class, but Dunkley said she still thinks about the principles she learned there when writing sets and helping with scripts today.
“There’s a lot of standup comics I know who don't want to think about the theory of performance or the mechanics of their jokes,” she said. “But I think it’s important to consider how I project myself and what I want my comedy to put into the world. What you say to an audience can affect how they see things; I think that’s really important to take into account.”
Dunkley said she hopes her comedy also accomplishes another goal: creating more inclusion on stage.
“Part of it for me is being visible in all senses, as a black, queer woman, as the daughter of an immigrant. We’re not always in the public eye and we’re not always included in comedy,” she said. “I feel like I have a duty and an obligation to use the very limited audience I have to be loud, visible and comfortable with myself so that others can too.”
Raised on comedy from Steve Martin and movies from Monty Python, Wilcock chose an English degree program after realizing many of his comic heroes got their start as writers.
“They wrote stories and they wrote a lot of them, so in college I started doing the same,” he said.
Wilcock graduated with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the Department of English in 2012. He returned to the department as a creative writing lecturer and obtained a master’s degree in the same field in 2016. While in school, he was inspired to pursue another outlet after watching a different form of comedy on stage.
“I was really liking the writing portion of my degree but still wasn’t sure where to go with comedy, then my wife and I went to an improv show,” he said. “Soon I was performing every weekend at the National Comedy Theater in Mesa.”
Today, Wilcock is a fiction author and an independent copywriter working for major brands across the U.S. He also continues to perform and teach improv around Phoenix. What do comedy, fiction and advertising have in common? Wilcock said the spontaneity of the stage is the glue that holds them all together.
“In improv, you’re having to create characters very quickly and consider how they inhabit the stage,” he said. “I would get a lot of my writing inspiration through that, I'd create something to perform and pretty soon that character would show up in my stories.”
He said the stage can also be a powerful outlet for writers across fields and students still honing the craft.
“The first copywriting job I had out of college actually hired me because I did improv. Within that role it was important for me to jump from voice to voice quickly, just like on stage,” he said. “Writers are often hesitant, they want the finished product but get stuck in the process. Improv forces you out of the rut because it’s a situation where the only bad decision is no decision at all.”
A lot of students study English after a childhood spent reading. But for Longfellow, the road started with a love of comedy.
“I was already doing stand-up by the time I had gotten into college, and at first I was really just looking for something that had to do with words and would allow me to continue working on my comedy,” he said. “But once I got into the major, I actually started embracing it and enjoying it.”
Longfellow obtained a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2016. After graduating, a chance encounter with another comedian was the push he was looking for to pursue stand-up full time.
“I felt like I’d already put all my marbles in that basket, but I was still kind of waiting for someone to swoop me up and take me with them,” he said. “Then I got the opening slot for one of Arden Myrin’s Phoenix shows, and afterward she told me, ‘You’ve got to move to L.A.’ That was all I needed to jump in the car.”
Longfellow has since appeared on shows such as the NBC comedy competition, "Bring the Funny," and "Late Night with Conan O’Brien."
"All I wanted to do when I started was a late-night set, so 'Conan' for me was a major moment,” he said. “Also, to be honest, it was just a tangible thing I could tell my parents and have them know what it meant. I think it sort of eased whatever worry they had about my move.”
For others looking to find a place on the stage, he said the first step is about being willing to try.
“Phoenix has a great comedy scene and it’s an awesome place to start,” he said. “Sometimes it can feel overwhelming watching comics who have already made it, but I think going to an open mike and seeing others perform, it shows you that it’s something people just do, and it makes you feel like you can too.”